Boot Camp: Understanding Equine Leg Protection

Text & photos by Traci Durrell-Khalife

As this cross country horse gets tacked up, he already sports galloping boots front and rear,
as well as bell boots.

There are many types of leg protection used on real horses. Some are designed for equine transport while others are fashioned for protection during work. Whether on the longe line, in harness, or under saddle, there are specific types of boots that are customarily used to decrease the risk of leg strain or injury.

We'll focus on boots that are appropriate for use under saddle. When allowed in competition, boots are optional equipment. However, in some events they are so prevalent, they seem the norm. For example, while you may see a horse without boots entered in a reining class in a small show, any serious reiner will outfit his horse with some type of leg protection.

Wearing open front jumping boots and ankle boots,
a jumper warms up in the arena.

In order to give your model the winning edge in working events, properly equip him with the appropriate leg wear. It not only adds to the realism of your entry, but it also demonstrates your knowledge of the event and your attention to detail in assuring the proper fit and adjustment.

Boots are not used in western pleasure or trail classes. They may be allowed in western riding classes, depending on the sanctioning association (they're optional in POA, but prohibited in US Equestrian Federation, for example). To make a "finished" entry, boots should be used in reining, working cow horse, team penning, cutting, roping and western gaming. These events require speed, quick turns, sliding stops - movements that expose a horse's legs to injury. In western events, splint (shin) boots on the front legs  and skid (rundown) boots on the rear legs are standard. Bell boots may also be used on the front feet.

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These boots are both protective and color coordinated with the rest of the tack. Western splint boots are used onthe front legs. Skid boots protect the rear fetlocks of working Western horses.

In English circles, boots are not allowed in hunter under saddle classes (usually called huntseat pleasure in the model world), hunter over fences, dressage, or trail. In show jumping, open front boots are the top choice for the front legs, often along with bell boots. Ankle boots may be used on the rear. Cross country competitors are generally outfitted with galloping boots on all four legs, and often bell boots in front. Protective boots are also permitted in gymkhana.

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A close-up of front jumping boots and bell boots. Boots help make a gymkhana entry more complete.


Colored leg wraps (also called polo wraps) are seen in both disciplines as well, especially in gymkhana, drill and team events where they also serve a decorative purpose.

On real horses polos must be very carefully wrapped, as there is a risk of them unraveling, which could pose a hazard. Because of this, they're undesirable in jumping or cross country.

Quarter boots on the front feet are sometimes permitted in saddleseat, but it depends on the breed and the class.

Since there is variation among breeds and associations, it's advisable to check the rulebooks and verify what's allowed. Most are available online now.

Not all model performance entries depict a competitive event. There are great working ranch scenes of cutting, roping, branding and herding. Leisure activities such as trail riding, camping, and fox hunting also make creative entries. Rulebooks don't govern these activities, so you can use your judgement as to what's appropriate. If the horse is working hard, using leg protection is a good idea.

Once you've figured out what's appropriate for your entry, you need to either purchase or make accurate replicas of the real thing. Tack catalogs are great references. They often show a close up of the boot on a leg, so you can see the proportions and correct placement. If you'd like to make your own, Rio Rondo has kits available.

Open front boots are standard protection on show jumpers.

Boots typically have either buckle or Velcro closures. For realism and detail, most model boots have buckles. They have the advantage of a secure fit, but the disadvantage of being very tedious to buckle up. This is especially evident as time is ticking away at a live show until the "Class Closed" announcement is made for your roping class, and you're still fussing with 1/16" buckles and straps!

You can solve this problem with the help of sticky wax. Just slip a buckle over each long strap. Wax this strap over its corresponding short strap. You'll have the realism of the buckle, but the simplicity of sticky waxing it. This works great if your straps are soft and pliable. Pay attention to stiff straps as they may be stronger than the wax bond and pop off.

Until you become familiar with the boots, you may not be able to tell the top from the bottom and the left from the right. A timesaving tip is to label the inside of each boot in a pair with "L↑" and "R↓". This indicates the left and right leg and the arrow points up on the horse. A ballpoint pen works fine for labeling.

Be sure the boots are adjusted snugly. If they're too loose on a real horse, they risk slipping or turning. However, if they're too tight, they will be uncomfortable for the horse. Looking at pictures of real horses will help you learn the correct placement. Tack catalogs provide the best views.

The detail, realism and proper use of equine boots will help your performance entries step into the winner's circle. So go ahead and put your best foot forward!